Texas border towns divided over deployment of Guard, state troopers
RIO GRANDE CITY, Texas – When then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry deployed a battalion of the state's National Guard troops here last August, he called them the “tip of the spear” against Mexican cartels that trafficked dope and illegal immigrants.
Critics, especially here in the Rio Grande Valley, derided Perry's decision as expensive political theater that “militarized” the border and antagonized Mexico.
Perry's supporters defended the move as a long overdue “surge” of police and soldiers against an influx of tens of thousands of undocumented and unescorted juveniles, mostly from Central America, that would fill gaps in federal border security.
What's divided Rio Grande City and nearby towns, however, was the second plank of Perry's border security plan: stationing Department of Public Safety highway patrolmen on major roadways across much of the valley.
Critics say the state cops spend far more time writing traffic citations than they do collaring coyotes or drug mules. They call Perry's deployment a job-killer, especially for young people in the hard-hit service sector. And they contend that innocent residents of Hispanic descent are ethnically profiled by cops who aren't from the region.
Supporters of Perry — who has declared his candidacy for the GOP nomination for president — counter that the plan cut crime in cash-starved river communities by deterring cross-border smuggling.
“I have nothing against the National Guard and their mission to secure the border,” said Antonio Alcazar, 53, who helps run a Rio Grande City legal office. “The problem has been with the governor putting state troopers here. ... They intimidate everyone. Businesses are going broke. You lose your rights. They do whatever they want with you.”
“Someone had to help re-establish law and order, and immigration enforcement is the sole responsibility of the federal government,” said Ruben Villarreal, 52, Rio Grande City's popular Republican mayor who stepped down and is exploring a run for Congress.
“The federal government has been ineffective. They've been very derelict in their duties.”
A Tribune-Review investigations reporter spent a week in the Rio Grande City area as part of a two-month, 1,933-mile journey along the U.S.-Mexico border, from towns in the toe of Texas like Rio Grande City all the way to San Diego.
Residents said outside pundits and politicos on both sides of the argument are pretty much wrong about the Guard's mission here, the seat of rural Starr County.
Few residents really cared about the Guard because they say they hardly ever saw them; troops manned checkpoints along the river or at the junctures of rutted farm roads and spent off-duty hours at a motel.
But residents and visitors quickly noticed a lot of cops. Texas troopers armed with machine guns in fast-attack boats skittering up and down the river, in helicopters overhead, and in cruisers prowling through Hidalgo and Starr counties, joined U.S. Homeland Security agents watching the riverbank and alleys.
Trouble in river city
Across America's southwestern states, a doubling of U.S. Border Patrol agents and a bitter economic recession beginning in 2008 helped to slash the number of arrests of undocumented immigrants to levels unseen in more than three decades – except in the agency's Rio Grande sector, which includes Starr County.
A Trib investigative analysis of court records found that in 2013 and 2014, federal prosecutors convicted 76 coyotes caught inside the county — more than half of them nabbed within Rio Grande City itself.
Two of every three were U.S. citizens living along a 54-mile stretch from Roma, in far western Starr County, east to McAllen in Hildalgo County.
Records show the Texas Department of Public Safety helped to convict only one of these coyotes, a Mexican driver who plowed into a Rio Grande City house on June 11, 2014, while transporting 14 illegal immigrants.
Four of every five coyotes caught here did the same job: They drove illegal immigrants to stash houses in McAllen or neighboring cities to await the trip to Houston — often a week-long trek by foot and vehicles to circumvent Border Patrol.
At the Rio Billiards Pub downtown, barkeep Jesus Alaniz, 23, said last call used to be at 2 a.m.
During the normally bustling Christmas shopping season, however, last call came before midnight. He blamed the lost customers -- with revenues down an estimated 60 percent -- on a large state police presence that led patrons to bypass the town rather than risking traffic stops and possible citations.
“We're trying to make a living. We're trying to make something of ourselves, but we're worrying about losing jobs. People are afraid to hang out now,” Alaniz said.
A September economic report issued by The Perryman Group, a Waco, Texas-based financial forecasting firm, confirmed Alaniz's fears. Charting the impact of previous security surges in the Rio Grande Valley, the organization predicted nearly $542 million in business losses throughout the region and 7,830 job cuts. The economists traced the dip to military operations that discouraged new business investment, retail shopping and tourism -- all concerns echoed by residents interviewed by a Trib investigations reporter.
After adjourning on June 1, the Texas legislature sent Republican Gov. Greg Abbott a two-year budget that includes $811 million in border security spending over the next two years. The $310 million earmarked for next year includes enough funding to continue the Guard deployment along the Rio Grande River until state troopers take their place.
Alaniz and David Gonzales, 19, a South Texas College nursing student and part-time coffee shop manager, said Hispanic residents, especially young men, are tired of state troopers pulling them over “at every stop sign.”
“We start to feel paranoid. We want to be able to travel from one part of the city to the other without being bothered,” Gonzales said.
The problem is that most troopers aren't locals like Rio Grande City police or even a large number of National Guardsmen, residents said. Imported from statewide for Perry's security push here, the highway patrolmen can't tell the locals from coyotes or illegal immigrants, so everyone gets stopped, critics told a Trib investigations reporter.
“They look at us as if we're illegals. They're overzealous,” Alaniz said.
Texas officials declined comment.
But Mayor Villarreal argued that most constituent complaints about state cops stem from vigorous enforcement of traffic citations, especially in school zones, not ethnic profiling.
He urged residents to remain patient while the border plan plays out.
“It didn't get this way in a matter of months. It won't be fixed in a matter of months,” he said.
Abbott seems to agree with Villarreal. Abbott is mulling a $735 million border security package that includes both National Guard and increased state law enforcement personnel – double current spending — while slashing taxes $4.2 billion. He has said he wants to pass on the Texas bill to federal taxpayers.
Contacted by a Trib investigations reporter, Abbott's office referred questions to the state's Department of Public Safety, which did not return dozens of telephone and email messages.
Texas Military Forces – parent agency for the state's National Guard — says the deployment, overall, has succeeded.
Lt. Col. Joanne E. McGregor, spokeswoman for the agency, said state leaders authorized 1,000 slots for Guard members and 2,200 volunteered. Costs in the peak months of the tour hovered between $10 million and $12 million, but commanders were pleased with the unit's rapid deployment to help secure a border she called “porous.”
McGregor said that when commanders planned the deployment, they crafted operations to allay “concerns about militarization of the border” and tailored tactics to target only the “criminal element” trying to bring in guns and illegal immigrants.
Armed and muddy soldiers found in the field by a Trib investigations reporter said they were proud of their mission – which mostly involved radioing law enforcement agencies about anything suspicious.
Soldiers received 10 days of special training before deploying, including courses on the distinct culture of the Rio Grande Valley. They quickly adapted to the mission, partly because many were Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and had prior experience working with civilian authorities.
A trickier task, McGregor conceded, is determining the cost-effectiveness of military deployments when addressing immigration and smuggling problems.
“There's no simple solution,” she said.